Sunday, February 01, 2009

Can a fine artist save Brighton Festival?

'A book is like a garden carried in a pocket.'

Everyone wants to make books. Artists and kids usually make them beautifully, as do dedicated, experienced printers with a love and knowledge of fonts. Limited edition or one off books are mouthwatering. Scrapbooks, photo albums, diaries, baby books, travel journals. When I was working for creative partnerships at Bourne School in Eastbourne for two terms, helping kids in years four and five write poems, I ended my residency with a session on making hand-sewn pamphlets for their work. I'm nowhere near as good as someone who makes artist books, but stitching a little eight page pamphlet is simple and if you use quality paper it feels substantial. The kids loved their books - their first collections of poems, illustrated too - and in their own way were tiptoeing in the footsteps of that master of artist books: William Blake.

Then there are celebrity books. My daughter's heat magazine was the only thing to read on the kitchen table this morning, other than a problem page on infidelity by Virginia Ironside. Four pages on 'the crazy world of Pete Doherty'. And a photo of Pete, dressed in fetching Byronic pastiche, signing copies of his book: The Books of Albion - the Collected Writings of Pete Doherty. I remembered the turning point in literature festivals a few years back. Brighton festival had a wonderful programmer - a guy called Adrian who put on Derek Walcott, Sharon Olds, CK Williams and many more astonishing poets. He packed out 100 seater venues with poetry.

When Adrian left, the literature strand changed. Later it wasn't even called literature, but books and debate. The door to celebrity was flung open - journalists replaced poets, cooks replaced poets, biographers replaced poets and celebrities replaced poets. Instead of working on building up an audience for writing, the festival dumbed down.

Blake's Visions of the Daughter's of Albion was a radical, political tract condemning treatment of women and slavery. And he was an awkward, troubled man. I'd love to think of Blake wandering down the coast from his Felpham retreat, to do a reading at the Brighton festival, looking out at the sea where he imagined visions of his literary heroes. But try as I may, I can't make it work. Wordsworth wrote about Blake: "There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in his madness which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott." I wonder if Wordworth was as irritated by the easy targets in Don Juan as I am sometimes, especially that line towards the beginning, "At fifty, love for love is rare, tis true...." His arrogance is utterly contemporary.

Brighton festival launches on February 18. The guest director is Anish Kapoor. In publicity about his appointment there was nothing about literature - the four strands of the festival, it seems, are dance, theatre, music and debate. Can we have faith that a fine artist will dig deeper? Will the chattering classes ever be halted?

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